Online Games Can Deepen Our Attention to Ecology

Some of the best conservation tools embrace the desire to play

By Kate Fishman

January 29, 2024

Young hiker woman taking a picture of forest details on her forest walk.

Photo by hobo_018/iStock

My Wordle-adjacent amusement of choice these days is a taxonomy game that found viral fame on science Tumblr. To play Metazooa, one builds a web of connections between species by guessing animal names, getting ever closer to the animal of the day. I began on a recent writing break with “snail” and traveled into the depths of Mollusca, the second largest order of invertebrates. As I did, my screen populated with descriptions of each clade and images of intertidal creatures. 

Play is an ideal back door into learning, whether seeking knowledge of biodiversity or five-letter words. But educational games aren’t the only ones teaching about ecology—studies of popular video games suggest that some of our most beloved digital worlds are also deepening people’s relationships with nature. 

In the midst of a sixth mass extinction spurred on by extractive human behavior, that’s a compelling symbiosis. We undervalue digital landscapes at our peril; while living increasingly urbanized lives, our screens can be a gateway to a greater sense of ecological responsibility. 

Take Animal Crossing, a gentle and popular paradise where players build their perfect island, meet its adorable creatures, and visit others’ onscreen communities. Its latest edition, called New Horizons, sold 13.41 million units in its first six weeks when it dropped in March 2020. Simon Coroller, now a biology PhD candidate at Université de Sherbrooke, in Quebec, was interning in Spain at the time and isolating with his roommate. They took refuge in the video game. 

At first, the roommates joked about studying whether Animal Crossing had an effect on ecological knowledge. Then, after creating and sharing a survey online that asked people to identify different plant and animal species—and only at the end asked whether they’d played Animal Crossing—they had 200 respondents and findings that showed that players of Animal Crossing were demonstrably better at identifying fossils, fishes, and insects present in the game. 

A 2021 study used similar methodologies, and found similar results, for players of the hyperrealistic Western adventure game Red Dead Redemption. Not only could players ID wildlife featured in the game at a higher rate, but they also reported learning about animal behaviors—like vocalizing, bluff-charging, or playing dead—in the course of play. The game’s action could be an asset to its ecological framework, the researchers write: “the natural world players experience in RDR is always lively, risky and to be negotiated with, rather than mute, benign and there to be observed.”

For Abhas Misraraj, a product designer with the field observation social network iNaturalist, games were a childhood outlet for interest in the world around him. He grew up diligently studying Pokémon cards to learn what made different creatures unique, what could harm them, and where they thrived. While getting his degree in integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, it all clicked: learning about the animal kingdom scratched the same itch as rifling through Pokémon cards. 

Pokémon itself came from the mind of bug collector and nature lover Satoshi Tajiri, who grew up in a post-World War II industrialized Japan. His local pond became an arcade in childhood, he told Time in 1999. There, he fell in love with video games—and his fascination with the reptiles and amphibians that used to thrive near his home inspired the “pocket monsters” of his virtual world. 

When Misraraj led the redesign of Seek, a kid-friendly app from iNaturalist that uses AI photographic tech to ID any living thing a user might photograph, Pokémon was a key source of inspiration. Firstly, Misraraj tapped into a hunger for categorization in the minds of children (and adults). Seek’s camera now shows the taxa of any organism in its lens, a feature that classifies a creature in the sweeping tree of life—and in the context of a user’s collection of observed organisms. There’s even a button that flags whether the animal or plant is captive or cultivated. Secondly, Seek users can now complete challenges, à la the modern Pokémon Go. Questing with Seek, players look for real species in their world rather than fictional animals. Observation is the endgame, closer attention to surrounding ecosystems an inevitable result of play.

“It’s kid-friendly, but it’s actually a tool for empathy,” Misraraj said. “Someone on my team said that knowing a name is like a password. Suddenly, once you have that password, you see that organism everywhere.” 

Gamification with the values of conservation biology offers a pathway from video games’ captivating potential to real-world change. Coroller hopes magic can happen if the world-building skills of developers meet scientists’ environmental attentiveness; after all, what’s learned from big budget video games isn’t all positive. In the case of Red Dead Redemption, gameplay can fall into an antagonist, conquering framework reminiscent of Teddy Roosevelt’s explorations. And a big franchise like Nintendo prioritizes moving video games, Coroller emphasized, not modeling civic responsibility. 

“Some of the game mechanisms are not very ecologically friendly,” he said of Animal Crossing. “You have to fish a lot of rare organisms to earn more money. You can bring indigenous organisms (from another place) to your own island in order to have a broader biodiversity. But we know that's not really how it works on an island—if you bring back something, it’s usually a disaster.”

Metazooa lies somewhere between the pure play of a video game world and Seek’s game-inflected observation tools. Creator Abe Train thought for a while about how to make a game out of the phylogenetic tree, which classifies all life on Earth. Relying on the Wordle model, while utilizing classifications from the American National Center for Bioinformatics and imagery from Wikipedia, the game helps players make informed guesses as they go. 

“You don't need to know the scientific names of the orders and families and all that kind of stuff,” Train said of his game, which on a good day boasts some 20,000 players. “You learn that while you play the game.... You just need to know animals.” 

Biologists chatting on Metazooa’s Discord immediately raised conservation issues, Train said, discussing how the game’s features could interact with the effects of human-caused climate change or whether reproducing Metazooa with endangered species might be possible. 

But per Coroller’s findings, prompting attention to biodiversity alone is a victory; play, a portal to real care. A game gives people an experience rather than preaching a right answer. That’s the guiding principle behind Michalina Kułakowska’s work with the Centre for Systems Solutions based in Poland, an organization founded to help understand complex systemic intersections within sustainability goals. She and a colleague run the page Games4Sustainability, a resource for finding socially conscious, issues-oriented games, which hosts around 10,000 users each month. 

“In reality, it’s often very difficult to say who’s ‘winning,’” Kułakowska said. “We want people to experience that the choices they are making have trade-offs and different outcomes, and for them to decide.”

Misraraj tries to steer clear of winners and losers, too, in the gamification features he implements for iNaturalist. For example, if someone’s sole focus is their quantity of observations in a given window, that can sacrifice their submissions’ quality and take away from iNaturalist’s utility to its whole community. He’s considering badges on Seek that congratulate users on their own observation milestones, as well as features that further encourage them to make an iNaturalist account and join the network of observers. 

His favorite example of gamifying conservation is the City Nature Challenge, an annual competition in which people in nearly 500 cities worldwide document local ecology to earn their community observational glory. Success is measured by volume of observations, species identified, and participation, and the challenge has led to revelations about urban biodiversity—and about how even lighthearted citizen science can bolster awareness of threats to local ecosystems.

Tapping into the desire to play isn’t about generating interest in nature where there was none; the enduring success of Pokémon testifies that caring for creatures is in our DNA. But everyone benefits when we have somewhere to put that, and when we learn enough along the way to advocate for positive change in our own environments. 

When I first started playing Metazooa I was determined never to turn to Google, relying only on the in-game information and my own guesswork. But trying to puzzle out my Mollusca mystery, I was floundering. I guessed hermit crab, giant octopus, and oyster. I recalled Finding Nemo’s, “So the mollusk says to the sea cucumber,” but landed further up the tree than I’d come. 

Maybe part of the point was to learn beyond my own limited taxonomic repertoire. While “abalone” wasn’t a guessable organism within Metazooa, it was a touchstone species for me after reporting on its decline in California and I was curious how close it could be to the mystery species. Googling more about abalone and other members of Mollusca, I learned just how textbook the species’ plight is; mollusks as a whole represent a staggering 42 percent of recorded extinctions since the year 1500. 

“Oyster” was my next guess and focused my efforts to Pteriomorphia, a subclass of saltwater clams. Searching up this order led me, of all things, to its iNaturalist page. Scrolling a compendium of people’s observations of Pteriomorphia, I took in a rainbow of clams from around the world, many of which I’d never heard of. 

Wait a minute—was it possible I hadn’t guessed “mussel” yet? I tried it. I’d learned something—and I’d won.